Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Hanford’s story can be told in different ways

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford reservation in Eastern Washington is one of this state’s most critical and vexing environmental problems. The site is so dangerous to the people and environment along the Columbia River that every Washington resident ought to keep an eye on the progress.

“The contaminants out there are so dangerous and so long-lived… We should be absolutely insisting that the federal government clean that site up, whatever the cost,” Jay Manning told me three years ago.

Manning was the director of the Department of Ecology when I interviewed him about the state’s top environmental problems. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 16, 2008. He has since become the governor’s chief of staff. See Water Ways, Oct. 5, 2009.

Since then, the federal government has poured billions into the project, including a significant boost of dollars with the economic stimulus package. Now that effort is being pared back, with a significant loss of jobs, as Annette Cary reports in the Tri-City Herald.

Converting huge amounts of nuclear waste into a safer form is a difficult technological and logistical problem, as reporter Craig Welch points out in a pair Seattle Times stories published Jan. 22 and Jan. 23.

These stories bring you into the meat of the problem. But I have to say that I was equally impressed by a short piece I heard last night on KUOW radio. Reporter Anna King helps us understand the nature of problem from the perspective of people who have made a career out of cleaning up Hanford’s waste. These grizzled employees have learned from years of experience, and are now about to turn over their projects to a new generation. The newcomers will learn to navigate the minefields of nuclear risk — but they, too, may be retired before the job is done. Quoting from her piece:
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Amusing Monday: python versus alligator

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Here’s another battle between species. In November on Water Ways, I repeated a “dramatic” video showing a life-or-death fight between a shark and an octopus. The video was filmed at the Seattle Aquarium and was produced by National Geographic.
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Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

This time, the fight (actually a double billing) is between an alligator and a python in the Florida Everglades, where Burmese pythons are not native but have grown to incredible numbers in recent years. So which animal is the king of the swamp? Left to their own battles, will the alligator survive or will the python become the dominant predator?

This video, taken from a Nature program last year on PBS, shows that individual battles between an alligator and a python depend on the size of the individuals.

The program describes research in which pythons have been found to eat a wide variety of mammals, birds and reptiles. Because the invasive pythons could wipe out endangered species, a serious effort is under way to keep them out of the Florida Keys, where they have not yet established a comfortable home. The invasion is a serious, but interesting, challenge. I can recommend the entire 50-minute episode if you have not seen it.


Logo aims to capture magnitude of Elwha project

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

The new logo for the Elwha dam removal and river restoration was unveiled tonight along with the tagline, “Natural Wonders Never Cease.”

The new logo was designed by Laurel Black Design of Port Angeles. The tagline was created by New Path Marketing of Sammamish.

A news release from Olympic National Park says the logo was designed to represent “the magnitude and importance of the Elwha River Restoration project, which includes the largest dam removal in U.S. history and will restore the river’s salmon populations from 3,000 to nearly 400,000.”

“This is an environmental and cultural restoration project that has already attracted national and international attention – and it’s right here in our backyard,” remarked Park Superintendent Karen Gustin.

The Elwha River Restoration page contains links to short descriptions as well as photos, documents, history and frequently asked questions.

If you’d like to check out my latest stories on the project, go to:

Elwha Project Expected to Blast Open Nature’s Door to Bountiful Fish Runs

Elwha Restoration: Bringing Back Habitats and Culture

Elwha Restoration: Where Will 400,000 Young Plants Find a Place to Live?

Elwha Restoration: Will We See the Legendary 100-Pound Chinook?


Amusing Monday: Google goes beyond the streets

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Last week, Google announced a new “Street View” from Antarctica, a seemingly remote and desolate place. Is there nowhere left to hide?

Two new Street Views allow you a glimpse of a colony of penguins as well as a scenic vista of Half Moon Island, one of the Shetland Islands in the Southern Ocean.

Penguins on Half Moon Island, from Google Street View

Now, Street View images are available on all seven continents, bragged Brian McClendon, vice president of engineering for Google Earth and Maps.

Several bloggers were quick to point out that Antarctica has no streets to view, so the name is completely out of context.
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Anticipation is running high for Elwha dams removal

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Studies about the future of the Elwha River, which snakes up into Olympic National Park, have been going on for more than 20 years. Now that dam removal is about a year away, excitement is reaching new heights.

Glines Canyon Dam is the larger of the two dams to be removed on the Elwha River.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

I thought that this would be a good time to discuss the restoration of the river and reservoirs behind the two dams. How will the natural environment change? What kinds of plants will take over? And what will be the future of salmon and steelhead that have hung on in the lower river all these years?

These are subjects I touched on in a series of articles published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun. In one piece, I also mentioned the special cultural significance of the Elwha River to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

What I did not cover in this reporting project was the old debate about whether the two dams should be removed. At $350 million, it’s an expensive project, and some people are convinced that it is not worthwhile. Costs of protecting water quality for the city of Port Angeles and replacing the power for the paper mill are part of the public expense. But these issues were decided long ago.

My intention in these articles was to show what could be expected as the dams come down and the restoration moves into the key areas behind the reservoirs.

Read my stories by clicking on the following:

Elwha Project Expected to Blast Open Nature’s Door to Bountiful Fish Runs

Elwha Restoration: Where Will 400,000 Young Plants Find a Place to Live?

Elwha Restoration: Will We See the Legendary 100-Pound Chinook?

Elwha Restoration: Bringing Back Habitats and Culture

Rebuilding specific stocks of salmon, steelhead and trout, along with dam-removal process

For general information with links to related studies, visit the Elwha Watershed Information Resource, developed by the University of Idaho through a cooperative agreement with the NOAA Coastal Services Center and in partnership with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Peninsula College and Western Washington University.

Also check out the Elwha page on Olympic National Park’s website, where another page lists studies and other documents.


Estuary grants will aid Chico Creek and more

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

I’ve written lots of stories about replacing culverts to improve salmon passage, but a $600,000 grant to the Suquamish Tribe will be used to remove a culvert and fully open up the estuary at the mouth of Chico Creek.

This culvert on Chico Creek is scheduled for removal. Here, Suquamish Fisheries Manager Jay Zischke and the tribe's environmental biologist Tom Ostrom survey the scene.
Photo courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

The Chico Creek grant was among some $30 million in grants announced Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Puget Sound Estuary Program. I wrote about the grants and quoted involved officials in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. I’ll cover the other Puget Sound projects here after talking about the one on Chico Creek.

Most roads that follow a shoreline in the Puget Sound region go somewhere important, but Kittyhawk Drive is a dead-end. After crossing Chico Creek, the road serves only three homes, if I recall correctly.

After the stream flows through a culvert under Highway 3, it passes beneath Kittyhawk Drive with enough force to blow out some of the large rocks planted there to help salmon make it upstream. Removing the culvert will improve the estuary and help with the fish-passage problem at that location, but the project needs to address a change in elevation to get up to the freeway culvert.

The freeway culvert is another obstacle of concern. Local officials are working with the Washington Department of Transportation to find a way to replace that freeway culvert with a bridge. Needless to say, the cost will be enormous.

Another Chico Creek culvert destined for replacement is the one under Golf Club Road, just upstream from Kitsap Golf and Country Club. That culvert replacement is part of an extensive restoration of the stream channel where if flows through the golf course.

Yes, all this sounds like a lot of expense for one salmon stream, but biologists will tell you that Chico Creek supports the largest chum salmon run on the Kitsap Peninsula and provides a decent run of coho and potentially other species. Once the migrating adult salmon make it through the culverts near the mouth of the stream, they have good spawning habitat upstream in the Chico Creek watershed. Tributaries include Kitsap Creek, which flows out of Kitsap Lake; Wildcat Creek, which flows out of Wildcat Lake; and Dickerson Creek, which originates within a vast undeveloped forestland.

Exactly when we’ll see the culvert under Kittyhawk Drive removed remains uncertain. First, a new driveway must be built for residents on the far side of the culvert. I’m told there is still some design work to be done before contracts can go out to bid, and construction must be scheduled around the salmon migrations.

Other projects approved for funding:
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Blowout survivor’s dramatic tale offers new details

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Sunday’s “60 Minutes” program revealed a lot to me about the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the technical side, survivor Mike Williams describes a series of human errors in operation and judgment that may have caused the blowout. On the human side, Williams’ dramatic account of his narrow escape from death is riveting.

If you haven’t seen the program, I suggest you go to the website for “Blowout: The Deepwater Horizon Disaster” and play the video segments along the left side of the page. If you have seen the program, the “extras” may interest you. I know I was wondering what happened to the young woman who Williams told to jump from the rig as fire enveloped them. Her fate was not described on television, but her rescue is explained in the “extras.”

I would not be surprised if a movie producer is already scrambling for the right to tell Williams’ story, but that’s another matter.

The imbedded video here is Part 2, which begins with Williams’ escape from the oil rig, then launches into a discussion about the possible cause of the blowout. Reporter Scott Pelley’s explanation, with graphics, puts things in simple terms — including how the blowout preventer may have become damaged during operations, how backup control equipment went unrepaired, and how decisions about managing well pressure during shutdown may have led to the fiery gusher.

I have to remind myself that we have not seen a report of the investigation, though one is under way by the Coast Guard and Mineral Management Service. Over the weekend, President Obama apparently decided to create a commission to look into the incident as well, according to ABC News. and the Associated Press.

At this point, we don’t even have a complete response or description from BP managers who operated the drilling rig. So I will be cautious in drawing conclusions, but it is becoming clear that company personnel made not one but a series of fatal errors likely to be described in detail before this incident is put to rest.


Is it time to watch Chesapeake Bay for solutions?

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

After years of struggle and failure to reverse the decline of Chesapeake Bay’s rich ecosystem, the Obama administration this morning announced a new federal strategy for restoring the bay to health.

I believe it will be important for us in the Puget Sound region to pay attention to this strategy, as we also observe our own Puget Sound Partnership struggling to accomplish similar goals in our region.

The new “Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” appears to focus the regulatory weight of the federal government onto a restoration problem that a multitude of states has been unable to accomplish together. A news release from the Environmental Protection Agency puts it this way:

“The strategy includes using rigorous regulations to restore clean water, implementing new conservation practices on 4 million acres of farms, conserving 2 million acres of undeveloped land and rebuilding oysters in 20 tributaries of the bay.

“To increase accountability, federal agencies will establish milestones every two years for actions to make progress toward measurable environmental goals. These will support and complement the states’ two-year milestones.”

Last year, out of frustration, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act that would improve the bay’s water quality and help the ecosystem. Yesterday, the CBF dropped the lawsuit on a promise that the EPA will ensure that improvements are made on a strict schedule.

In many ways, the strategy appears to mirror philosophies found in the legislation creating the Puget Sound Partnership — including science-based priorities, measured progress and accountability.

One idea from the Chesapeake strategy: “Greater transparency and integration of federal, state and local actions will be greatly enhanced through ChesapeakeStat, a web-based tool designed to provide performance data and information in a format that allows a range of audiences to understand the work being done in the Chesapeake watershed.”

The new federal strategy recognizes the need to continue existing efforts and to focus on other short-term actions by local governments and nonprofit organizations. It also includes a focus on jobs, including agriculture, fishing and conservation. And, as with the Puget Sound Partnership, a strong effort will be made to focus dollars and resources where it will do the most good.

Here are some comments from federal officials taken from the news release:
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State will provide cleanup resources to the Gulf

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a matter of national significance, she essentially put on alert all emergency management systems across the country.

Washington Department of Ecology, which is responsible for responding to oil spills in this state, has identified resources the agency could send while maintaining an adequate local response capability, said Ecology’s Curt Hart in a memo he issued Monday to news reporters and editors.

Spill response companies in Washington and across the country are identifying people and resources that could be sent to the Gulf, he said.

Hart is communications manager for Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program. Here’s a portion of his memo:

Ecology expects to continue to receive requests for people and equipment from the spill response community to assist in the response. Our department is working to make sure we have a sound plan in place to process these requests. It is important that we are well coordinated in this effort and that no required response resources are moved out of Washington state without explicit approval.

Some, like the Marine Spill Response Corp., have already sent 26 experienced responders, 15,000 gallons of chemical dispersants used to minimize oil shoreline impacts, 1,400 feet of special fireproof boom to burn oil in place on the water.

On Friday, April 30, the Department of Homeland Security asked state agencies in Washington, including Ecology, what resources they could send to aid our Gulf coast communities if and when it becomes necessary.

This type of issue is not new to Ecology. We have had mutual aid plans in place with the other west coast states and the Province of British Columbia since 1993. It is our general policy to provide the appropriate resources necessary to support our partners in the United States and Canada in order to protect our national environmental and economic interest. We may also need their help in return someday.

Ecology and other state agencies are participating in the state Department of Military Emergency Management Division’s “Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)” activation. EMAC is a national interstate mutual aid agreement that enables states to share resources during times of disaster. We have identified the types and number of resources that we could send while still maintaining our local response capability.

Ecology has set up a website for those who want to follow Washington state’s response to the Gulf oil spill.

In addition to private responders, Ecology has indicated that it could send 11 specialists in oil spills and natural resources and 27 shoreline cleanup technicians, according to an Associated Press story by George Tibbits.

It is likely that the cleanup will go on for months. In previous oil-spill cleanups, workers who come later to relieve the first responders are invaluable — and that may be when the most workers from the West Coast are called in.


Shoreline task force will help revise regulations

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

All the pieces are nearly in place for Kitsap County residents and planners to begin examining the ecosystem at the edge of the waters encircling the Kitsap Peninsula.

Beyond beauty, shoreline environments contain vital ecosystems. (Click to enlarge)
Kitsap Sun photo

Oh, yes, lakes and a few streams are part of the picture.

Kitsap County commissioners last night appointed a 20-member citizen task force to take a central role in the planning effort. For the first time in county history, regulations will be based on ecosystem values. See the story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun listing the members.

Similar planning efforts are under way in Kitsap’s cities as well as various communities throughout the Puget Sound region. I wrote a story for the Kitsap Sun Feb. 27 regarding the effort for our cities.

In the past, shoreline regulations were based on existing land uses. Buffers — including the current 100-foot buffer for rural areas — were uniform throughout the entire county. Previous rules never took into consideration the particular types of shoreline or their ecological values. For example, an estuary with a highly productive marsh and a stream running through it was treated exactly the same as a rocky outcropping pounded by waves.
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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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